As Britney Spears’ debut single turns twenty, we remember the song that changed pop forever
Charli XCX throws back to one of the biggest and influential pop singles of the last twenty years on her brand new nostalgia-fest ‘1999’. “Sing, ‘hit me, baby, one more time,’ she drawls in the chorus, name-dropping Britney Spears’ debut single as she remembers cruising around her old neighbourhood with the radio blaring. The song, which changed the face of pop music, turns twenty today, and most kids (and adults tbh) around in the nineties will have a similar memory of howling along to ‘…Baby One More Time’s iconic bridge.
According to Charli she incorporated the Britney-referencing lyric in at the suggestion of pop powerhouse Max Martin, who produced ‘1999’ and also co-wrote Spears’ debut single. It was the producer’s big commercial breakthrough after penning previous songs with Robyn, Backstreet Boys, and Westlife; today he’s a lead engineer when it comes to the shape of current music. “That [lyric] came from him,” Charli told Billboard. “He not only made the song better, but he also referenced himself in a song he and wrote and produced that [was big] in 1999. I was like, “That’s why he’s the king of pop.” The queen of pop, of course, has to be Britney Spears herself.
Take stock of Charli XCX’s playful visual aesthetics – over the years she’s donned drag to impersonate Steve Jobs, paced the playground herself in the Iggy Azalea collab ‘Fancy’, and thrown a cowboy-tinted pool party with Rita Ora for ‘Doing It’ – and the parallels with the music video for ‘…Baby One More Time’ are obvious. In fact, it’s safe to say that without Britney’s iconic classroom moment, complete with tied up shirt and fluffy pink biro, we may not have Katy Perry’s cupcake bras, Taylor Swift’s pantomime villain effort ‘Look What You Made Me Do, Selena Gomez’s whispery ‘Bad Liar’, Rihanna’s joyful sensuality or Lady Gaga’s playful creativity in ‘Paparazzi’. Countless other pop artists making music today also owe at least a few dues to what Britney began in 1998.
Britney Spears was a pop star in charge of her image, calling the shots, and blending innocence and experience expectedly in one iconic music moment.
Before Britney Spears arrived on the scene, 90s pop was largely dominated by vocally acrobatic ballad-belters. Hitting every note imaginable, nonchalantly flying through octaves like it’s no big deal, Whitney Houston’s version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ smashed through a whole horde of world records in ‘92. Spawning legions of lesser imitators in X Factor audition rooms across the country for the next two decades, Mariah Carey’s pipes caused a minor earthquake the following year with the frankly enormous ‘Hero’. And the year before ‘…Baby One More Time’ came out, Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ – aka. the absolute pinnacle of rousing movie theme songs – became one of the biggest singles of all time.
Even Madonna – historically a bit of an outlier when it comes to flashy over-singing – even got in on the trend for gigantic ballads, putting her own spin on ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’. Then, along came Britney.
Britney Spears, with her uniquely measured voice – an ever-so-slightly nasal grit roughening up the edges like vocal sandpaper – was different to everyone else out there. Aside from Max Martin collaborator Robyn (whose single ‘Show Me Love’ directly influenced Spears and her team) there were no other artists straddling bubblegum and Rn’B in quite the same way. Forgoing an emotive powerhouse vocal in favour of saying something else entirely, a new era was born
Spears’ tone is occasionally referred to as “baby voice”. Not only is that a bit infantilising, it’s not giving the singer much credit. Rather, it’s a tone that Spears had been working on for some time; purposefully choosing to restrain her vocals in order to convey something rougher, and more suggestive. It worked. With ‘…Baby One More Time’ Britney Spears emerged a fully realised star, and the opening verse of ‘…Baby One More Time’ has long been imitated since its release in ‘98 – most accurately by Ariana Grande on SNL – for good reason. Immediately recognisable from the second those three distinct piano chords thud into life, the single shot straight to number one in every single country it charted in across the world.
The song originally came to life when Max Martin woke up in the middle of the night, with the chorus line “hit me baby one more time”, stuck in his head. Stumbling out of bed and locating his dictaphone, “I remember listening back to [the tape] after [the song] blew up and you can hear me sort of go: ‘Hit me baby one more time’,” Martin told Jan Gradvall in 2016. “Then I hear myself say, Yeah, it’s pretty good.” After sketching out the song, Martin offered it to Rn’B champs TLC, who objected to the use of the phrase “hit me” in the chorus. They turned it down, and despite a last minute coup attempt – Simon Cowell reportedly requested a re-write for Five – the song ultimately went to a newcomer named Britney Spears, who had just signed to Jive.
Signing, originally, was a struggle. When Britney met with labels in the US, she was dismissed straight away. The late-90s audience, they reportedly said, wanted to hear groups instead – the next Spice Girls or TLC. “There wasn’t going to be another Madonna, another Debbie Gibson, or another Tiffany,” a label is quoted as saying in Mark Hughes’ book Buzzmarketing: get people to talk about your stuff. Two weeks later, Jive rang Spears’ manager Larry Rudolph – they had spotted the potential. After a month of ’development’ – honing that distinctive vocal – she then headed to Martin’s Stockholm studio to record. One of those tracks was ‘…Baby One More Time’. “I think Max is a genius. It all just came together and felt right,” Spears told The Guardian earlier this year.
With a home now located for the smash hit in waiting, Britney and her team began work on the video. The singer was instrumental in the final direction, suggesting the entire setting and concept for the video. Shot in Venice High School – the same location used for Grease – the visual follows the star as a bored student in a catholic school. It perfectly tapped into the success of the decade’s various High School movies, and spoke to her fans without patronising them with cartoons and babyish imagery.
Along with incorporating dance routines to the video, Britney also switched the costumes, bringing in school uniforms in place of the jeans and t-shirts her director Nigel Dick brought to the table originally. “Every piece of wardrobe in the video came from Kmart, and I was told at the time not one piece of clothing in the video cost more than $17,” Dick said of the video, speaking to MTV in 2009. “On that level, it’s real. That probably, in retrospect, is a part of its charm.”
‘…Baby One More Time’ faced predictable criticism. Some called the song vapid. Others suggested that Britney Spears (dramatic gasp) baring her midriff would corrupt the youth of America. In reply, she had the perfect comeback. “Me showing my belly?” Dick recalls her saying. “I’m from the South; you’re stupid if you don’t wear a sports bra [when you] go to dance class, you’re going to be sweating your butt off.”
In the face of many of the questionable videos of the 90s, which sexualised women to disturbing degrees, men behind the cameras, Britney Spears was a pop star in charge of her image, calling the shots, and blending innocence and experience expectedly in one iconic music moment. Leading the way in pop, ‘…Baby One More Time’ was just the first single from a star unashamed of expressing her sexuality. Twenty years later, it still stands out as a moment that paved the way for countless artists to come.